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Surprising Knicks get harsh dose of reality in loss to Bucks

The Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Knicks' Taj

The Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Knicks' Taj Gibson go after a loose ball during the first half of an NBA game on Thursday in Milwaukee. Credit: AP/Morry Gash

The Knicks soaked in the All-Star break. Julius Randle went to Atlanta and played in the game for the first time. Obi Toppin was in the Slam Dunk competition. It was a time to relax and consider what they had achieved — or overachieved — in the first half of the season.

But a wake-up call for the challenge that faces them came quickly as the Knicks kicked off the second half of their schedule Thursday night in Milwaukee. After falling behind by 38 points, they lost to the Bucks, 134-101, at Fiserv Forum.

On the one-year anniversary of the night the season was shut down last year, the Knicks reverted to their 2019-20 form.

Perhaps a perfect encapsulation of what happened occurred late in the third quarter. As Randle tried to bring the ball upcourt, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo easily stripped him and outraced him the other way for an easy dunk. After another turnover, Randle went to the bench with five turnovers and three field goals.

Randle struggled through his worst game of the season, scoring seven points and shooting 3-for-12. Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

Early in the season, the Knicks beat the Bucks by 20, and whether it was revenge or simply a regression to the mean, the Bucks paid them back.

"The same things go into winning, so you have to ask yourself, ‘What did we get done defensively?’ They’re a heck of an offensive team," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "So any time you commit to one specific area, you’re going to be vulnerable in other areas. But we shouldn’t give up everything, and that’s what we ended up doing. So we didn’t take care of the transition, we didn’t take care of the paint, we didn’t take care of covering the line and then we didn’t finish our defense with rebounding well.

''They pretty much got everything they wanted. Against a team like that, you’re not going to win. You can’t do it for stretches of the game. you have to do it start to finish. So we have to learn from it."

Randle carried the team so many times in the first half of the season, but on this night, he just could not do it, and no one picked up the slack.

"I was fine. They did collapse," he said. "I tried to spray the ball around and make reads. I missed a couple of shots, layups, stuff I make forever, but I’m not too worried, man."

"We had a letdown tonight," Taj Gibson said. "But we can’t really do much about it. We just have to prepare for the next one. Guys understand the stakes, understand that we have to work a little harder."

Entering the game, the Knicks not only were just 3 1⁄2 games behind Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference standings but in fifth place in the conference and dreaming about a playoff chase. And that set the timeline for a rebuild on its head, meaning that they started the second half with not only an arduous schedule but a decision to make about whether to go all-in.

Do you believe that this Knicks squad is really a contender for a top-four seed? Or are they a team that will hope to hang on near the end of the playoff field? That might determine what the front office, led by team president Leon Rose, working his first trade deadline, will do in the next two weeks.

"That’s a Leon question," Thibodeau said this week. "Look, I have a strong bias towards good players. I know they’re looking at all the possibilities. If something makes sense for us, we’ll do it. If not, I love the team that we have."

The team already has made one deal since the season began, trading for Thibodeau favorite Derrick Rose. However, that offense-boosting deal has been negated for now because Rose has been subjected to the NBA health and safety protocols and missed his third straight game Thursday.

If the first half gave the Knicks hope that they are a contender, the four-game trip through Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Brooklyn and Philadelphia could provide hints that they aren’t.

New York Sports